Thursday, April 16, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Universal Studios enjoyed so much success with its various monsters that the temptation to make endless sequels and combinations of characters proved too tempting, and movies like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) appeared in large numbers throughout the 1930s and 40s. Of course, the quality of these pictures declines in direct proportion with their quantity, but fans of classic horror enjoy them as much for their flaws as for their virtues. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays mostly as a direct sequel to the 1941 film, The Wolf Man, and it features Lon Chaney's Larry Talbot/Wolf Man character far more than it does Frankenstein's monster. While it lacks the narrative coherence of the original film, it does offer a second encounter with some wonderful characters, and the cast brings together an impressive cadre of classic horror's most reliable stars.

The plot resurrects Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) four years after his assumed death. Talbot, distraught at being alive and cursed by lycanthropy again, eventually makes his way to the home of Dr. Frankenstein, in the hope that the infamous doctor can end his eternal life. Unfortunately, the doctor is dead, and Larry finds and revives the monster (Bela Lugosi) instead. The unfortunate village near Frankenstein's castle falls prey to the depredations of both werewolf and monster, prompting panic and a rising mob, while Larry's doctor, Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles), and the attractive Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey) struggle to bring Larry and the monster to a peaceful end.

The plot fails to resolve itself, probably because Universal wanted to keep its monsters alive for additional sequels, and editing decisions cut much of Lugosi's role out of the final version of the picture. Technically speaking, the only Frankenstein in the film is Elsa, who is actually the granddaughter of the original mad scientist and the daughter of his son, who had taken up the family vocation in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Frank Mannering ends up being the doctor who must face the temptation of controlling life and death, and he never gets insane enough to be much fun.

Chaney continues to imbue Larry Talbot with tragic pathos, and his transformation scenes are really quite good, better even than those seen in the original film. Rejoining him on his journey to Frankenstein's castle is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, and she makes the movie worth watching all by herself. Dwight Frye has a small role as one of the villagers (you'll miss him if you aren't watching for him), and Lionel Atwill, another regular in the genre, plays the reasonable town mayor. Lugosi, sadly, has little to do; many of the scenes featuring the monster are really stunt doubles, and the monster's limited screen time makes him merely a minor character, despite the title's implication to the contrary.

I can't tell you why Patric Knowles ends up playing two different characters named Frank between The Wolf Man and this film, but it makes for a rather odd sense of deja vu if you watch both movies in rapid succession. Maybe he just makes a perfect foil to Chaney, or perhaps director Roy William Neill wanted to bring back as many of the original film's cast as possible. Even Chaney's beloved German Shepherd, Moose, who played the role of the wolf in the original movie, makes a brief appearance in the sequel. Chaney himself would bring Larry Talbot back for more suffering in House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). You can see more of Maria Ouspenskaya in Love Affair (1939), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Roy William Neill's directorial credits include many Sherlock Holmes adventures with Basil Rathbone, but he also directed Black Angel (1946).